Videos: Watch Movie Clips Shot By Late 'Godfather' Cinematographer Gordon Willis
Late last night word spread that the famed cinematographer Gordon Willis passed away. He was 82.Although cinematographers hardly get the due they deserve, Willis was an essential part of American movie history. His trademark compositions that juxtaposed light and darkness, which hearkened back to film noir and German expressionist cinema, earned him the nickname that stuck with him a part of his legacy: The Prince of Darkness. When confirming the news to Deadline late last night, American Society of Cinematographers president Richard Crudo said, "He changed the way films looked and the way people looked at films."
Willis honed his craft when he joined the Air Force during the Korean War, serving in their motion pictures unit. After his service he worked as a cameraman for advertising and documentaries, but it wasn't until the 70s when he broke into Hollywood, with 1970's End Of The Road as his first major credit. Two years later, he was behind the camera for the film that would vault him into Hollywood history: Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather.
From the very first shot of the film, Willis' indelible mark is left on the audience. That infamous opening line, "I believe in America," is spoken over a brief frame of pure darkness before the image of its speaker's face is flooded in; a sinister entrance for a film about the violent tendencies of the capitalist American Dream:
As the scene plays out, note how the lighting comes in from above. This was due to the intricacies of the make-up Marlon Brando wears throughout the film, but it also creates the perfect effect of keeping Vito Corleone's eyes within the shadows. Francis Ford Coppola and Willis worked together to make the world of The Godfather one of shadows and dark spaces, to fit its time period of the 1940s and to capture the underworld of organized crime. Ironically, Paramount executives balked at how underlit the film compared to the rest of contemporary studio works, but Coppola relented and Willis was allowed to keep his job. He would also go on to shoot the remaining two films of the trilogy.
Willis also maintained a long partnership with director Alan J. Pakula, with Pakula's 1997 The Devil's Own being the last film he shot before he retired. Pakula's conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s (Klute, The Parallax View, All The President's Men) echoed the sentiments of a generation that had grown cynical of Washington, between the quagmire of Vietnam and the Watergate scandal. Willis' ability to compose a frame that played off light and shadows were simply perfect for depicting the cloak-and-dagger world that existed in our very own urban parking lots and hallways of bureaucracy:
Not everything Willis shot was set in a world of shadows and secretive men. Beginning with Annie Hall, Woody Allen and Willis developed a working relationship that included many of Allen's most beloved films, including Manhattan, Zelig, Broadway Danny Rose, and The Purple Rose Of Cairo. Using his masterful skills of playing with light, he was able to capture the romantic essence of Allen's New York, one where light was made more intimate from the presence of Manhattan's skyscrapers. Of course he's most famous for that immortal shot in Manhattan from below the Queensboro Bridge, but his best work in that film comes from a spontaneous stroll through the Hayden Planetarium, making Allen and Diane Keaton looking like interplanetary travelers, sweet-talking their way through deep space:
And when there's darkness, there's light somewhere, and Willis was always more than adept at the contrast of the two. In the famous Godfather baptism scene (starring an infant Sofia Coppola), the sacred rite occurs in an enclosed space that is slightly lit while the massacre goes on in broad daylight:
In Annie Hall, Willis shot its Los Angeles scenes in blown out lighting, contrasting Alvy's neurotic New Yorker off the overly cheery California sun. It's almost as if Woody Allen squints through every scene in Los Angeles:
For his contributions to the world of cinema, Willis was named as one of the ten most influential cinematographers in history by the International Cinematographers Guild in 2003. Despite his reputation and his lauded work, he was only nominated twice for an Academy Award (for Zelig and The Godfather Part III), but received an honorary Oscar in 2009.
For a generation of movie fanatics, Willis was likely the first cinematographer whose name they learned. Perhaps because he just so happened to shoot one of the most famous films of all time. But for a medium whose most essential instrument captures images, it is impossible to separate what Gordon Willis did from the qualities of all these timeless works.